Lifting the Lid on Post-Lockdown Color Cosmetics

The color category may be witnessing a new kind of revival following a challenging pandemic landscape. According to NPD, makeup sales declined by 34% over the last year, while the lip category was down 41%. The lip products that launched during lockdown emphasized relevant benefits like transfer-proof properties that could withstand masks, or nourishing ingredients like seed oils and hyaluronic acid.

On the flip side, lockdown also gave consumers new and lasting ways to digest beauty content. As we emerge from the pandemic, companies like Solésence, a leading manufacturer of clean, inclusive environmental-protection beauty products, predict that the lasting elements from the lockdown era of beauty will be results-guided launches that improve skin health for everyone. “What we’re seeing now is really an acceleration of the pre-COVID-19 landscape: clean beauty, but expanded, with higher standards and a more holistic focus; efficacy-driven products with an even greater emphasis on science in storytelling; products across multiple categories including skin health benefits,” comments Kevin Cureton, Solésence Chief Operating Officer. 

There’s no doubt that the beauty market has a big future. According to a February 2021 PowerReviews survey, participants are 40% more likely to experiment with new products and 59% spend the same, if not more, on beauty products than pre-pandemic. And rather than simply falling into categories of glamour or natural beauty consumer, modes of consumption have morphed into online and offline distinctions.

The lockdown enabled a whole generation to express their creativity and connect with other makeup aficionados through TikTok tutorials (the beauty category has over 21 billion views). Here, makeup application is about the transformative potential, precise application, and visual special effects. Offline, vibrant color application on an otherwise bare or mostly natural face are proving popular aesthetic choices, tapping into the painterly possibilities of color cosmetics, as evidenced in the Zara Cosmetics and Byredo Makeup campaigns. Consider it the antithesis of precision and detail-orientated Instagram looks. Gender-neutral brands such as TooD and Kulfi are also embracing this imperfect beauty approach, championing the lighthearted and confidence-boosting (rather than perfection-driven) qualities of makeup. In the UK, a 90s-fueled nostalgia wave of glitter, gloss, and blue eyeshadow is emerging, driving the sales of nude lipstick looks, frosty glosses, and dark lip pencils. Whereas in the past clean cosmetics brands often stuck with more classic shade ranges due to the technical constraints of creating non-animal-based hues or formulas, these newly daring presentations show customers needn’t sacrifice an ounce of creative possibility.

But with that increased exposure comes heightened scrutiny of product ingredients and claims. “The acceleration of clean beauty has made it a new baseline across the industry, and a strong voice that consumers want to listen to,” says Cureton. “The continued emphasis on efficacy, and the rigorous science behind it, is something that will be increasingly demanded by consumers.” With a $22 billion estimated future worth for the clean beauty category, this budding segment will only continue to grow.

And with 97% of female consumers demanding more ingredient transparency, and 90% desiring clearer language used on product packaging, facts and quantifiable results will reign supreme. Clean beauty is also expanding to signify conscientiously minded ranges. “Inclusive product lines have certainly become the norm over the past twelve months,” says Cureton. “One of the questions we are asked most frequently is how many shades should be in a range. And while I don’t think that there is necessarily a right or a wrong answer to that, I do think that it’s a great question for brands to be asking themselves, and to be asking their consumers.” 

The 15 Percent Pledge by the likes of Sephora, Macy’s, and Blue Mercury to commit 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses, as well as Ulta Beauty’s promise to double the amount of Black-owned brands on its shelves, have made significant inroads, but there is still room for improvement—and nuance which moves beyond the numbers. Launching 40 to 50+ shade ranges or skincare ranges that promote themselves for all types and ethnicities is not only a financial challenge for any independent brand, but the different skincare needs of various ethnicities proves an additional hurdle. “This challenge ultimately benefits the entire industry,” says Cureton, “because by formulating for the most challenging skin type—whether it be preventing greasiness on oily skin or ghosting on darker complexions—you are creating a better product for everyone, and a bigger business opportunity for your brand.” 

Other innovators like 4.5.6., a skincare company targeting melanin-rich skin, and Orcé Cosmetics, which offers a range of color cosmetics tailored towards the undertones and skincare needs of Asian skin, are catering to underserved customer needs with a specialized approach. “When companies are setting up strategic goals, they need to factor in the nuances of people that are going to buy from the product line, and from there that should go into the boardroom and making decisions like who attributes the budget and how that can be used to support that vision,” says Noelly Michoux, co-founder and CEO of 4.5.6. “I specialize in a demographic that has been overlooked, but we’ve also received backlash from the beauty industry, editors, retailers, and investors that we’re not being inclusive because we’re serving a specific group,” says Yu-Chen Shih, founder of Orcé Cosmetics. “We can get to the point of inclusivity faster, or in a more holistic way, if we encourage more brands that have a special interest in a specific group and have them create solutions that actually work.” The imperative to keep diversifying the industry dialogue—and retail shelves—will evolve and create more space for consumer research and science-focused brands.

Products that work could indeed become the hallmark of the next era of beauty, where skin health plays a key role in both skincare and color cosmetics categories, and clean, consciously created products are important. As consumers emerge from more than a year indoors, some who have grown accustomed to a more natural and minimalist approach will continue to practice it, whereas others will eagerly reactivate their color cosmetics practices as lockdowns lift. The pandemic has been a rocky road to navigate, but it has also forced the industry and consumer alike to reflect on what matters in unprecedented ways—so whatever consumers choose will be more of a conscious choice than before.

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